Monday, July 6, 2009

Objective Morality, or, God’s Classroom Rules

An often-repeated argument in favor of religion is that it provides an objective morality. Without God, the argument goes, there is no objective morality, because without a Supreme Being to tell us what is right and wrong, my interpretation of morality and your interpretation of morality are equally valid. Yet there must be an objective morality, therefore God must exist and He must have provided us with a moral code.

There are a number of problems with this argument.

1) The biblical code of morality does not match our modern-day sensibilities. While we would still agree with commandments such as “do not murder” and “do not commit adultery,” owning slaves, selling our young daughters, and killing witches goes against our (current) moral instincts. A God-given moral code should be applicable in all times and places.

2) It reduces us all to children, unable to control ourselves and in need of parental rules to restrain us from running wild. This may in part explain why people cling to this argument. Growing up we are used to rules being imposed on us by parents, teachers, and other rule givers. As adults we continue to submit ourselves to the authority of governments and other social institutions. It seems only natural that there should be a Supreme Rule-giver Who can tell us what we should do in all situations. An objective morality acts as a giant Classroom Rules poster plastered on the wall of the universe that everyone is bound to obey. If we’re good little boys and girls we get prizes in Heaven; if we break the rules we get detention in Gehenom.

Additionally, an objective morality makes decision making much easier. There is a set of rules constraining our choices, and when faced with a dilemma, one can compare the options to the rules and choose the option that violates the rules the least. We humans, in general, take as many shortcuts as possible when making decisions. If we had to sit and think through every decision we make, weighing the pros and cons and deliberating the best course of action, we would never get anything done. We use heuristics (rules-of-thumb) to help us make decisions, and a moral code can be thought of as an elaborate heuristic.

Thus an objective morality is not a necessity to the functioning of the universe the way that, say, the law of gravity is. Its just something that we would like to have because it would be convenient for us and make us feel certain about the way we and others should behave.

3) Most importantly, the argument is flawed because it makes the assumption that there really is such a thing as an objective morality. The theistic argument as stated is internally sound.

A) Without God (or some outside force superior to the individual person) there is no objective morality.
B) There must be an objective morality.
C) Therefore God must exist.

The problem is that B isn’t true. There is no reason that there must be an objective morality.

So without God there is no objective morality?

Deal with it.

29 comments:

  1. No God given morality would simply mean an end to humanity.

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/10/god-save-king-why-we-need-both.html

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  2. G*3, I agree with you, the idea about there must be morality and therefore G-D must exist is a really bad argument. One can not think there must be morality and therefore G-D must exist, this is faulty reasoning because it is equally valid to say that there is no morality and G-D doesn't exist.

    The only way to have an objective morality is to first prove or assume that G-D does exist, then there can be an objective morality. I never understand the "proof" of G-D through emotions, aka the need for an objective morality.

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  3. > No God given morality would simply mean an end to humanity.

    Why, because society would descend into anarchy? See the previous post.


    > G*3, I agree with you

    That's nice to hear!

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  4. G*3 here is my question to you: If one doesn't believe in G-D and therefore there is no objective morality, why follow a moral code? Why is killing, stealing, etc evil?

    I am not saying in any way that not believing in G-D means one is immoral. I am just asking, what causes someone who does not believe in G-D to keep morals.

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  5. couldn't find your email address anywhere, so I thought I'd just leave you a message here, regarding reincarnation in Judaism: Rabbi Mordechai Becher states that all of the kabbalistic masters speak of reincarnation and recycling of souls and opines that we should too. Just thought you'd like to know that it's not only in Hindu theology. You can respond to me at shatnes551atyahoodotcom

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  6. I don't believe that there is any kindness or peace instinct. Altruism actually was invented by Judaism.

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/01/genius-of-judaism-kindness.html

    I think the Noble Savage idea has been pretty much discredited.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_savage

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  7. Without a belief in a transcendent moral authority, it would seem likely that mankind would not last more than a century. One half would kill the other half, the survivors would not bother to have children and that would be the end of that.

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  8. > If one doesn't believe in G-D and therefore there is no objective morality, why follow a moral code? Why is killing, stealing, etc evil?

    Either for pragmatic reasons – to keep society going, it is necessary that we don’t kill each other – or for biological reasons. It’s common for soldiers to get physically sick the first time they kill someone.

    > regarding reincarnation … Just thought you'd like to know that it's not only in Hindu theology.

    Yes, of course. But Hinduism predates Judaism, so is it more likely that the concept of gilgulim was picked up by Hinduism from Judaism (before Judaism existed) or that Judaism got it from Hinduism in the middle ages when the crusaders brought Eastern ideas back to Europe?

    > Without a belief in a transcendent moral authority, it would seem likely that mankind would not last more than a century.

    You claim that altruism was invented by Judaism, yet even according to the accepted Torah timeline humanity was ignorant of God’s wishes for millennia. Yet we didn’t kill each other off. Even the dor hamabul didn’t kill each other off, that’s why God had to do it.

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  9. "Yet we didn’t kill each other off."

    First of all, nuclear weapons did not yet exist. Neither did good birth control.

    And there was plenty of killing going on; the population wasn't too big. That was probably one reason.

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  10. Also, even before Torah, other religions may have prohibited murder.

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  11. Religious morality is not objective either.
    Take the imperative "do not kill". Doesn't the application of the law depend on who is doing the killing, he is being killed, and who is interpreting? Doesn't it change over time and context?

    So when religionists claim that their morality is objective they are being dishonest.

    I would even argue that humanistic morality is more objective, because its basic underlying principle (reducing human suffering) is subject to study and verification.

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  12. DrJ, I would like to respectfully disagree with you about religious morality, at least in Judaism. I can not speak for Islam or Christianity since I am neither christian nor islamic. However, by Judaism all people are under the same rules when it comes to morals. Everyone is involved in the same exceptions. There is one law for everyone when it comes to morality. There are the same exceptions for everyone. I am following Judaism according to the Meiri and Rambam. Just check out these posts--http://markset565.blogspot.com/2009/05/meiri-equality-in-judaism.html

    http://markset565.blogspot.com/2009/05/morals-of-judaism.html

    By humanistic morality, why keep that moral code? What is compelling you to follow these rules?

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  13. > There is one law for everyone when it comes to morality.

    It would seem that these Rishonim are providing glosses that completely change the meaning of the gemmara. Even according to the links you provided, the non-Jew is only accorded equality if he safeguards others’ property like a Jew would – the assumption is that non-Jews are inherently immoral and only by acting like Jews do they become worthy of equal consideration.

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  14. But the Jew himself is only accorded equality if he safeguards others properties as well.

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  15. EM--
    1. The rules of killing changed over time (including in religion)
    2. The rules of killing are the subject of disputes and interpretation.

    Therefore the morality of killing is relative.

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  16. EM- also,

    Your example contrasts with many other laws that clearly differentiate between Jew and non-Jew. For example, violating Shabbat for a sick person. Only in recent times, as a result of having to be part of a modern state with humanistic values, are Jewish doctors permitted to violate Shabbat for non-Jews.

    Part of the confusion here is what does "objective" mean? To me it means "not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased"

    Therefore if something is the subject of debate, interpretation, and change it is not objective.

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  17. I would clarify that seemingly objective things can change, too, but that change is discarding old theories because of newly discovered facts.

    In contrast religious morality changes not because of newly discovered "facts" but because values, circumstances and priorities change. This is entirely subjective, humanistic, and acceeding to people's feelings.

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  18. > But the Jew himself is only accorded equality if he safeguards others properties as well.

    Maybe so, but the Jew starts with the assumption that he safeguards others’ property and only loses that status if we see that he doesn’t (as per the gemara – if his animals are always getting loose). The non-Jew starts with the assumption that he is callous towards other’s property and only becomes trustworthy if he demonstrates that he is careful. Incidentally, I’m not clear on exactly how he would do this.

    What does this have to do with the objectivity of morality anyway? If God is the arbiter of what is moral, and He says that it is moral to treat Jews and non-Jews differently, then it is moral. It is only if we want Torah morality to mesh with our personal senses of morality, today in the 21st century, that this becomes a problem. In which case we’re talking about subjective morality.

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  19. G3 and Eman
    "It is only if we want Torah morality to mesh with our personal senses of morality, today in the 21st century, that this becomes a problem. In which case we’re talking about subjective morality."

    Not only 21st century. The Rabbis did it during the Talmudic period. They had to make the Torah fit morality that was changing. Prayer and learning instead of killing animals and priestly castes. Teshuva instead of floggings and death penalties. Ketuba for women, Etc, etc.

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  20. Yes, absoloutly. The "21st century" bit was directly related to "we" who live now.

    The taanaim and the amoraim ret-conned a lot of stuff in tanach, but most of the examples you cite were changed at least as much due to the reality on teh ground as due to changing social mores. There was no more Bais HaMikdash, so replacement for sacrifices was necessary - prayer was elevated into this role. Jewish courts no longer had the authority to execute people for aveiros, so we do teshuvah and they ret-conned the death penality into something that was rarely applied anyway.

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  21. "retconned"-- I learned a new word! I was never a big comic book fan...

    Regarding the changes of reality vs changing mores-- you are correct, although by the time the second Temple was destroyed it had already become a corrupt, fragmented and increasingly irrelevant institution. The transition to "rabbinic" Judaism was already occuring.

    Also, many changes in social mores are themselves related to changes "on the ground". Polygamy and child slavery became increasingly unacceptable in the Christian world so that became part of Jewish law. With the advent of credit and currency loans could not be made without interest so we came up with loopholes. (or we loaned with interest to the goyim...)

    As you pointed out the process continues today, although fundamentalists either resist this or "retcon" by saying that the Torah built in the loopholes because God knew things would change.

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  22. I just want to mention incidentally that secular humanism is merely a residue of religious value.

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/12/always-let-your-conscience-be-your.html

    Evolution in fact encourages mass murder.

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/04/trip-to-zoo.html

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  23. While JP censors out commments he doesn't like on his blog (he has blocked several of mine) he feels free to drop idiotic remarks on skeptics blogs.

    Is there any point to deleting his comments, or should we just leave them as they are so everybody can see what an asshole he is?

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  24. I see someone is jealous of my natural genius. I suggest that only my comments be posted.

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  25. Surely the Internet should be cleansed of emotionally disturbed, morally decadent people who feel guilty about having left Orthodox Judaism and who are trying to improve their self esteem by anonymously ridiculing people who are better than they are.

    I am not going to mention names.

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  26. > Is there any point to deleting his comments, or should we just leave them as they are so everybody can see what an asshole he is?

    Think of it as comic relief. It helps to move things along. Besides, he's providing an important service to us by posting arguments for us to pick apart.

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  27. "Besides, he's providing an important service to us by posting arguments for us to pick apart."

    That would be interesting, I wonder why no one ever can.

    http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/06/post-about-comments.html

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  28. "I wonder why no one ever can"

    Because you block the really good posts that make your claims look like crap.

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  29. Surely the Internet should be cleansed of emotionally disturbed, morally decadent people who feel guilty about having left Orthodox Judaism and who are trying to improve their self esteem by anonymously ridiculing people who are better than they are.

    Again, I am not going to lower myself to mention names.

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